The Great Smoky Mountains national park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee is home to spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains, so-called because of their natural fog that hangs around them. However, in the Bible, we read of another type of smoky mountain.
“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in the fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.” Exodus 19:18
The other night I went for a walk here in Victoria in the smoke presently generated by the forest fires of California and Pacific Northwest. The murky glow of street lights cast haunting shadows through the streets and the stuffy air seemed to add to the quiet of the evening. It was as if the neighbourhood had been engulfed in some otherworldly miasma. Though the smoke in our city was being produced by wildfires very far away, the present atmosphere was toxic and oppressive. Yet it was strangely beautiful. It drew my thoughts to this encounter from Exodus 19.
Mount Sinai was engulfed in smoke because the Lord God had descended there. He had come to communicate His will to the people of Israel, to be manifestly present and heard, yet His very appearing was fearsome. Who would approach such a scene? Where there’s smoke there’s fire. There was raging fire, earthquake, thunder and lightning, and the sound of a great trumpet. Any mortal would naturally avoid such a place with good reason.
Here we have an example of the holy presence of God. It’s fearsome and otherworldly; a place where the title of Mount Doom might be more apt. Perhaps it’s only natural such things would accompany God, the supreme being of the cosmos, as He made Himself present in space and time here on earth. All these warning signs on the mountain point to an unavoidable truth, that God cannot be approached by sinful human beings. He is too holy, good, and just. And we are not. Therefore even being near Him is a mortal danger to us.
Only Moses was permitted to draw near, and even he trembled with terror. He would hear God speak, and God gave mankind His holy commands to be recorded. But one might wonder if that is enough. It seems we could only ever know God from a great distance, hidden as He is in holy fire and smoke. Unapproachable.
Who can relate to a God like that?
The answer is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. “He is the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) and as God in human flesh He has drawn near to us, to save us. A “God like that” made this provision for us, and sent His only beloved Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Through faith in Christ’s lordship, His atoning death and resurrection, we are saved from the judgement due to us. We are cleansed of our sins and given the righteousness of Jesus Himself, which has made us fit to approach God.
Thankfully, we do not approach a terrible mountain as Moses did, “a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet”. (Hebrews 12:18-19) Rather, those who approach God through Christ have access “to mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,”. (Hebrews 12:22) It’s a beautiful contrast: Mt. Sinai was foreboding and terrifying, but the picture of Mt. Zion is inviting and gracious.
Through Jesus, we have access to heaven itself.
Today the smoke in our city has cleared. The sky is no longer obscured and darkened; the sun is shining brightly. Going outdoors is no longer a risk, and we can breathe clean fresh air. Distant mountains are no longer obfuscated by the smokey haze; things are becoming clear once again.
Thanks be to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has cleared the air between God and man!
(Micah Lefevre, Church of God in Victoria BC, Canada)